On Article 50

Since early last year, I live in Islington North (pretty much bang in the middle of it, in fact). This means that my MP is one Jeremy Corbyn.

This is a bit odd. I’ve never been represented by someone who wasn’t a backbencher before (at least, not at Westminster; for a brief while years ago my MSP was the subduedly-titled Deputy Minister for Justice). It also means that there is very little reason for me to ever write to my MP – his positions on something are usually front-page news and for any given topic I can figure out pretty quickly that either he’s already made a statement supporting it or disagrees with me entirely.

But, the Article 50 vote looms, and I felt I ought to do it for once. I know he disagrees with me; I know he’s whipped his party that way. The letter is a cry in the dark. But, well, you do what you must do.

Dear Mr. Corbyn,

I am writing in regard to the Article 50 second reading vote scheduled for Wednesday February 1st. As a constituent, I urge you to reconsider your position on this bill, and to vote against it at the second reading.

Firstly, I wish to remind you that around 75% of your constituents voted Remain, on a turnout of 70%. Not only was Islington one of the most strongly pro-EU areas of the country, this was a larger share of the electorate than you yourself have ever received from the constituency – and it has always been a solidly Labour seat. This is a remarkable result, and I feel it is only proper that you acknowledge your constituents’ clearly expressed position here.

Secondly, on pragmatic grounds, this bill is likely to pass without significant amendments, and thus without any controls on Brexit barring those imposed by a weak Prime Minister. As such, it is essentially handing a blank cheque to the hard right of the Conservative Party, giving them the carte blanche to engineer a Brexit most suited to their desired outcomes – xenophobic, intolerant, and devastating to the British people. This is a horrendous prospect.

Rejecting this bill at second reading will not stop Brexit and will not invalidate the referendum. However, rejecting the bill will have a decent chance of forcing these discussions to be open, to take place on a cross-party basis, and ensure that what emerges has a chance of being positive for us all.

Thirdly, the wider context. Internationally, the world has changed dramatically since last summer. Europe, with all its flaws, is a beacon of light and sanity compared to the United States, our closest non-EU ally. As you yourself noted yesterday, the Prime Minister’s support for Donald Trump places her firmly on the wrong side of history.

And in this light, the referendum result has some resonance. You were one of 84 Labour members to defy a whip and vote against the invasion of Iraq. A poll conducted the same day found about 50-55% of the country in favour of the war – the same number that voted to leave the EU.

A slim majority of the country – and the government – got it wrong a decade ago. We are not infallible. Sometimes, we all take the wrong steps and put ourselves on the wrong side of history. Now is a chance to put the brakes on and decide quite what we are doing, to move slowly and contemplatively, before continuing further.

I urge you to vote against this bill.

The referendum: the same dilemma on both sides

So, the referendum is well into the final stretch. With the polls pretty much neck-and-neck (and switching around!), the No camp has formally announced what’s been kicked around for a long time: vote No to independence, get much more devolution. (It’s not really a secret that this is what most people would have voted for all along if given a three way fight, but it’s odd to think that there’s no status quo in the middle any more.)

The Yes campaign’s response is, not unreasonably, best approximated by “yeah, right, sure you will”.

This has the strange effect of inverting the dynamic of the campaign, or at least inverting the dynamic of the campaign I get to see, which is people arguing online. (Thanks to a chain of what were at-the-time seemingly minor decisions, I ended up living in Cambridge and so don’t have a vote)

Last week, the No camp were saying “look, Salmond is winging it; he’s promising all these things he’ll negotiate for, and he’s confident he’ll get them, but… really? He still has to negotiate.”

This week, the Yes camp are saying “look, Westminster are winging it; they’re promising all these things they’ll do, and they’re swearing blind they will, but… really? They still have to actually do it.”

It’s all a bit cyclic.

We’re left with a strange impasse. The vote has to be made without knowing what the outcome of post-referendum negotiations are going to be – we know that Salmond will follow through with what he says he plans to negotiate for, we just don’t know whether he’ll achieve much of it. But it also has to be made without knowing whether the other side will honour their promises for devolution – there’s no question that a joint position of the three parties can deliver almost any program, if they actually follow through.

So one side dearly want to push through their program, but may not have the power to do so; the other side undoubtedly have the power to carry out theirs, but may not really want to. We’ll find out the answer to one (and only one) after the vote. But if either win and don’t get what they’re saying now, it’ll be a mess. Two pigs, two pokes.

In some ways, it comes down to which bit of the British establishment you are more cynical about: if you think the civil service are going to be exceptionally hard-headed negotiators and Salmond won’t get far, then voting No makes sense; if you think the three party leaders are going to turn around and pull the rug out as soon as they get the chance, then voting Yes might seem safer.

The problem with 38 Degrees

A few years ago, I did something using the 38 Degrees website – I forget what exactly, but I think it was a handy form for an irritated letter to a politician. It was a Labour minister, which dates this!

Over the next few years, I got a series of emails from them, culminating in the point when I noticed with some surprise that they were referring to me as part of “their movement” and I unsubscribed with some irritation. It seems they’re still at it; looking at their website, we find the remarkable claim that they have over 2.5 million members (which would make them the third largest organisation in the country).

According to their FAQ:

The only requirement of membership is to take an action, as simple as signing a petition, or attending an event.

And looking at a recent petition (on a topic dear to my heart…) we find a very carefully prepared option: you can opt in to receiving emails from the organisation behind the campaign, but you are automatically signed up to be on the 38 Degrees mailing list. The note here says:

Your personal information will be kept private and held securely. By submitting information you are agreeing to 38 Degrees keeping you informed about campaigns and agree to the use of cookies. privacy policy

Note what it does and doesn’t say. So, the system runs like this:

  • you sign a petition;
  • you are automatically enrolled on a mailing list, with the stated aim of “keeping you informed about campaigns” (section 3(g) of the privacy statement).
  • you are automatically considered a member of an organisation, despite this appearing nowhere on the signup or privacy page.
  • this organisation then claims the legitimacy of “2.5 million members”

The only way to get out of being “a member” is to notice this and unsubscribe. I can’t help but feel there’s something fundamentally disingenuous about this approach, and it leaves me with a pretty bad taste in my mouth.

Update: it seems that (at least as of 2013) 38 Degrees do send welcome-to-the-movement emails. (They certainly didn’t in 2010). It’s something, I suppose, but it still feels insufficient.

Shock news: government hires lawyers, honours contracts

One of the more delightful moments, any time the government releases a new tranche of spending data, is watching people try to find nuggets of Terrifyingly Embarrassing Information in it. Normally, this is silly contracted “team-building exercises”, or purchases of potted plants, and so on, but this non-story is particularly creative:

The Cabinet Office has denied claims of conflict of interest after it emerged that the law firm where the deputy prime minster’s wife works has a long-standing contract with the government department.
The Cabinet Office insisted that Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, signs off the department’s contracts, not Clegg. Durántez is not believed to be involved in the compliance monitoring work that DLA Piper carries out for the department.

DLA Piper, in fact, are contracted by four government departments (mostly for more money than this), which is somewhat to be expected, given they are also one of the largest law firms in the country. Still, there are critics:

Tom Watson, a former Cabinet Office minister, criticised the deal. He told the Daily Mail: “Apart from the potential conflict of interest between the husband and wife here, I think the contract should be reviewed, not least because they have not been doing a very good job, with the vanity staff appointments over the last six weeks.”

Okay, I guess, if you look hard, there is a germ of a story there. I mean, you can sort of see there’s a possible COI given she’s a partner and thus stands to (indirectly) benefit, and they’ve been hiring people oddly recently, and so on. So what’s the details of the contract?

A [Cabinet Office] spokesman said: “The contract was subject to full competitive tendering. It started in April 2008 and runs for four years with two annual options to extend. The two payments relate to monitoring of compliance by government departments with civil service recruitment procedures.”

Oh. 2008. All things considered, in 2008, had you asked someone at the Cabinet Office if they were concerned about awarding a contract which might conceivably pose a conflict of interest it it later happened that the leader of the Lib Dems were to be involved… well, I suspect it’d not have been taken very seriously.

So, to recap: Tom Watson, former Parliamentary Secretary at the Cabinet Office, thinks the government should renegotiate a contract which was allocated by his department during his time in office, because – in an unexpected chain of events – someone in the receiving company is now related to someone in the government, though neither are actually responsible for approving or performing the contract.

All of which, it need not be said by this point, was tendered, selected, and contracted for legitimately, as arms-length from Durántez as can be imagined – unless we are going to argue that whilst in opposition, Clegg had somehow subverted a minister to rig a contract on behalf of his wife. And if we do, then we should focus on bigger problems, because the responsible minister in the Cabinet Office at the time, who this theory would have as his partner in conspiracy, was one Ed Miliband.

As an example of dubious business practices, I suspect this one falls down on almost every count imaginable. Perhaps I am naive, but looking at the papers this week, I thought we had bigger issues to focus on than this sort of spurious silliness. The Coalition is making no end of decisions people can actually challenge for real reasons – why waste time waving around something that is patently above-board when there’s so much else out there?

Somehow, this does not surprise me

From the Guardian yesterday, a letter from Kettering:

As chair of Kettering’s Muslim Association and incumbent of the largest Anglican parish in the town centre, we were struck by the irony of our MP’s plans to refuse to meet any of his constituents who wear a veil. Such a form of dress is not, to our knowledge, worn by anyone in the local community. Not a single Muslim female has visited Mr Hollobone, veiled or unveiled, since he was elected. Our town has its share of social challenges, but it is plain to us that none of them relate to problems that can be linked to any religious issues. In the past Mr Hollobone has expended great energy on issues that genuinely affect his constituents. It is our hope that he might refocus his priorities to the benefit of those whom he has been elected to serve.

Dominic Barrington Priest-in-charge, Ss Peter & Paul, Kettering
Inam Khan Chair, Muslim Community Association, Kettering

Firing generals

This article in the Guardian, on Obama’s firing of McChrystal in Afghanistan, mentions past firings of military officials by US presidents, including MacArthur in 1951. That case was a pretty close match to this one – a field commander had publicly criticised the political direction of an ongoing war. and after a bit of back-and-forth he eventually got sacked.

It seems a good moment to drag out one of my favourite comments by Truman, his retrospective summary of that situation:

I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.

(Incidentally, the comment at the bottom of the page is interesting – one of Truman’s last acts as President was to destroy embarrassing material in Eisenhower’s personnel file. Would you get that now, you wonder?)

Capital Gains Tax side-effects

From the Telegraph:

Britain’s biggest building society issued a veiled warning to the coalition government that its plans to raise capital gains tax (CGT) may put the partial recovery in house prices at risk.

Buy to let and other landlords now own more than one in seven British homes or 15 per cent of the property in the private sector, according to Nationwide. Government plans to double the CGT landlords pay from its current fixed rate of 18 per cent to “closer” to 40 per cent, could cause many to sell and force prices down.

You know, in a more sensible world we’d be reading that as a two-for-one bonus, not as a terrible death-knell side effect. Buy-to-let speculative investment is distorting the housing market; anything which calms it down is all to the good.

We don’t expect government policies to make the price of used cars depreciate less drastically. We don’t expect government intervention to stabilise the antiques market, or tax policies carefully tailored to make unit trusts continue to burgeon. We are happy to see industrial or commercial property firms humbled by the shifting economic vagaries of the market. But put your money in residential property, and it seems the safety of your investment is the concern of every economist in the country.

There’s something a bit weird there.

One campaign pledge down, already

When quizzed on a range of local issues before the election, our candidates – well, most of them, at least – were strongly in favour of the idea that “food recycling should be rolled out to the whole of Oxford as soon as possible”.

I say “most”. The candidates for the Socialist Equality Party and the Conservative Party, perhaps accepting that their campaigns weren’t going to get very far anyway, didn’t reply. (The former’s grasp of local issues was, in any case, made a little more difficult by living in London). The candidate for the Equal Parenting Alliance was a little vague on the topic:

I’m not sure what food recycling is – sounds pretty dubious. If it means waste food going to animals or to help others, I’m all for it.

whilst the UKIP candidate disagreed on principle:

I don’t throw food away. Only people who manage their household badly do so. You should buy and cook only what you need.

I think that was cribbed from the financial section of their manifesto, come to think of it.

Anyway, the Labour, Green and Lib Dem candidates were all for it. We duly returned one of them on Thursday. And, as I was leaving for work on Monday, the council came around distributing food recycling bins.

Two conclusions can be drawn from this. Either a) Andrew Smith is an astonishingly influential local MP, whose word is law one working day after being returned to office, or b) …none of them had realised it was already planned to be rolled out across the city by the end of the year.

(I have to say: on the basis of one day’s use so far, I’m all for the system. Let’s see how well it works out in the long run.)

UKIP as a spoiling factor, part II

Following on from yesterday’s post on whether or not the presence of UKIP had cost the Conservative party a number of seats…

cim has done some analysis suggesting that a UKIP candidate produces a net increase in turnout of about 2.5% – 1,000 votes. However, the average UKIP candidate took around 1,600 votes, suggesting that they’re only taking around 40% of their votes from other candidates and the remainder from potential abstainees. If about half of that 40% would have voted Conservative, and the remainder voted for another minor party if one was present, then we can find the seats where the Conservative candidate was less than 20% of the UKIP vote away from beating their opponent.

There’s six of them – albeit one by a mere four votes, so we can perhaps call Dudley North a 50-50 chance.


If we raise the defection rate to 30%, we still have the same six seats under the threshold; if it’s raised to 40% – indicating that all defectors to UKIP came from the Conservatives – they would recover a seventh seat, Great Grimsby, from Labour.

Six seats is not enough to produce a definite majority, of course – but it’s certainly a non-trivial number, especially since they would come directly from the opposition. Had they taken these six seats, we’d be looking at 311 for the Conservatives versus 301 for an opposing Lib Dem-Labour coalition; it would become substantially harder for a reasonably robust coalition to form against the Conservatives, and so they would have a better chance at gambling on a minority government.

Historically speaking, it’s a plausible number. The Referendum Party (remember them?) in 1997 took 2.6% of the votes, and are estimated to have cost the Tories about four seats. UKIP took 3.1% of the vote this time around, so six seats is well within the bounds of plausibility.

Proportionalising the results

I was curious to see how this election would have played out under a proportional representation system. We can’t easily guess what an STV result would have looked like, since it would involve very different voting dynamics – but we can make a rough guess at what would happen if we had used multi-member regional seats, similar to the regional section of the system in Scotland.

(Scotland, for those unfamiliar, has a mixed system – every person is in an individual constituency, where they cast a normal FPTP vote; they then cast a second vote to elect members from their region, which returns about half a dozen MSPs. Regional votes are counted in a moderately complicated way so as to benefit parties with lower local representation; it actually comes out pretty representative of overall vote-share.)

Let’s say we do away with local seats entirely, and implement simple voting in county-based seats, with as many members from that county as it gets under the current system. Because people only cast a single vote, their preferences are likely to be broadly similar to their preferences under FPTP, and so we can use the existing data from the past two elections… and why counties? Constituencies are already grouped to follow county boundaries, and it provides a reasonably natural way of dividing them up.

What would it look like? A handful of arbitrary examples (2005 results are using 2010 boundaries; seat allocation uses the nice simple D’Hondt method):


  • FPTP 2005 – 6 Con, 1 LD
  • PR 2005 – 3 Con, 2 Lab, 2 LD
  • FPTP 2010 – 6 Con, 1 LD
  • PR 2010 – 4 Con, 1 Lab, 2 LD


  • FPTP 2005 – 1 Con, 13 Lab, 1 LD
  • PR 2005 – 3 Con, 9 Lab, 3 LD
  • FPTP 2010 – 1 Con, 13 Lab, 1 LD
  • PR 2010 – 3 Con, 9 Lab, 3 LD


  • FPTP 2005 – 4 Con, 1 Lab, 1 LD
  • PR 2005 – 3 Con, 1 Lab, 2 LD
  • FPTP 2010 – 5 Con, 1 Lab
  • PR 2010 – 3 Con, 1 Lab, 2 LD


  • FPTP 2005 – 3 Con, 3 Lab
  • PR 2005 – 3 Con, 2 Lab, 1 LD
  • FPTP 2010 – 6 Con
  • PR 2010 – 3 Con, 2 Lab, 1 LD

That last one is perhaps the most interesting – under FPTP it swung wildly from 3-3 to 6-0, but under PR it remained a balanced 3-2-1.

Some open issues with this model, though, frivolous as it is –

a) To what extent are the figures we’re getting from FPTP data representative of tactical voting, not of true preferences? That would drive down the results of third & fourth parties in any given region, and boost the second-placed.

b) What’s the optimal size for a region, and how do we allocate them? My gut feeling is that around half a dozen members is approximately right – big enough to iron out local oddities, small enough not to be too unwieldy – but I’m not sure if this is based on anything in particular. (Seven-member seats mean that each has approximately 700,000 people in it – the same size as the average US congressional district)

c) Shouldn’t we be using STV in these regions anyway? (The answer to that one is: probably yes. But see above.)